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Jared Harris

From the Vault #22: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen arrives in cinemas, is from August 18th, 2015…

From an impossibly cool, jazzy song over the Cold War scene setting opening credits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sets its stall out right from the very beginning as two things: a classy, retro stylish spy romp and very much a Guy Ritchie film.

It’s taken a *long* time to bring Sam Rolfe’s cult 60’s TV series, a slightly forgotten phenomenon of its time which capitalised on the James Bond obsession of the age (which of course never quite went away), to fruition – for years it was in the hands of multiple writers and directors. Quentin Tarantino almost made it in the mid-90’s but opted (perhaps wisely) for Jackie Brown instead, while Steven Soderbergh perhaps came the closest with George Clooney headlining, but let it go with concerns he couldn’t make it work with the budget offered.

In hindsight, Ritchie is probably the best fit for the stylistics in play here, a director always with one eye on style over substance with another eye on how to fuse a set piece with a river of cheeky, knowing comedy. What he succeeds in doing here is updating a property most modern audiences won’t be familiar with into an equally modern sensibility, while never losing touch with the 60’s retro beats and character interplay between leading West meets East characters Napoleon Solo, gentleman thief turned super spy, and Ilya Kuryakin, strong humourless Russian bear with anger problems.

It may be as deep as a puddle, but splashing around hasn’t been this enjoyable in a while.

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2019 Top 10: TV Shows

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’ve gone back and forth on decade lists but I suspect I’m just going to keep to 2019 releases on the blog, and maybe do something more with the decade on my Twitter or FB, so stay tuned in that regard.

Next up – TV shows. I’ve watched *loads* of TV this year, perhaps more than any other year I can remember, so I have plenty of series I can rifle through to decide what constitutes the best of the bunch. It’s been a cracking year for telly, all told, so this wasn’t the easiest list to compile, but here we go…

Threads for the Digital Age: YEARS AND YEARS

There is no doubt in my mind that Years and Years would have been a catastrophic horror show of a television series had it not been written by Russell T. Davies.

This six-part one-shot series shows just how unique Davies is to the landscape of television, particularly British television. It is, completely, an ‘RTD’ show. It is histrionic and human and warm and silly and dark and messy and filled with characters who are both people you know or have met or exist in your family, yet at the same time only exist in the stylistic world of RTD’s fiction. Years and Years feels like a culmination of Davies’ journey as a writer so far. It has the pain and anguish of homosexual love (Cucumber, Queer as Folk) against a backdrop of repression and fear. It has a global and expansive reach, covering a multitude of social and philosophical points (The Second Coming). It rushes head-long into near science-fiction and almost madcap plots against government villains caricatured at times to the point of hilarity (Doctor Who). It throws a hundred ideas into the pot and while not all of them stick, a remarkable amount do.

The reason Years and Years works, ultimately, is that it is full of hope and humanity at the core of what is otherwise a terrifying existential drama – a Threads for the digital age. Threads was a groundbreaking BBC film produced in 1984, in the dying embers of the Cold War (and pointedly before the Chernobyl accident, so brilliantly dramatised recently for HBO & Sky by Craig Mazin), all about the effects of a nuclear apocalypse on British soil. Though I was just a wild eyed, innocent, unaware two year old at the time, Threads very much stayed with audiences who watched it for a long time, even into the present day; a striking argument for why nuclear weapons should never be used on a civilian population. It was a drama about consequences. Years and Years is the same. I thought at first it was a show about the death of democracy and the erosion of a system we have perpetuated for the last century but, in truth, RTD is writing about the death of *humanity* in various forms, literal, psychological and allegorical. He is writing about a Western society that is losing, and has very much partly lost, its way.

His hope lies in the central family who ground the entire story, around whom the world begins falling apart. The Lyons family are RTD’s hope, his hope in us.

The Crown Season 1: The Efficient and the Dignified

The Crown could well end up being one of the most ambitious, grandiose television projects of the modern age. Created by Peter Morgan off the back of his successful stage play The Audience, itself inspired by Morgan’s earlier script for Stephen Frears’ The Queen, it intends to depict the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947, all the way through to the modern age, across six seasons. Budgeted at £100 million for the first season, already it’s one of the most expensive seasons of television ever produced, with Netflix investing significant capital into a project they’re very confident is going to go all the way. With a second season about to premiere and a third season in the planning stages, The Crown certainly looks as though it’s here to stay, and given how well put together its first ten episodes are, that can only be a good thing.

Morgan has become one of the pre-eminent screenwriters, if not *the* pre-eminent screenwriter, working in Britain today. He has also been consistently fascinated by the concept of monarchy, particularly Elizabeth II’s still ongoing reign. A decade ago, The Queen entered the public consciousness not just thanks to a stellar performance from Helen Mirren as the ageing monarch, but for depicting the Royal Family’s response to the death of Princess Diana, arguably as signature to the end of the 20th century for British subjects in terms of the Royals as Edward VIII’s abdication was in the early part of the century. Morgan zeroed in on an aspect which played a key role in The Queen, and indeed does in The Crown, for The Audience: Her Majesty’s audiences with successive Prime Minister’s across the decades.

This makes sense. Morgan is equally fascinated by the workings of government, particularly those of British Prime Ministers and the relationship with the United States across the last half century. His scripts have extensively featured Tony Blair in TV dramas such as The Deal and The Special Relationship, not to mention The Queen (played on all occasions by Michael Sheen). This fascination, this welding of government to monarchy and how the two are constructed in tandem, is a central function of The Crown and, indeed, to why the Netflix drama works so well. Morgan delights in making Winston Churchill a fully-fledged, fleshed out regular character (sublimely played by John Lithgow), with his own relationship with the young Elizabeth an important dynamic across the entire season, from a character and thematic perspective.